Homemade Marshmallow Troubleshooting
Know what's super fun? The influx of emails, tweets, comments, and Facebook messages I've received from folks working through the recipes in Marshmallow Madness!in recent weeks--lots of sweet stories and photos of fluffy, puffy successes that warm the cockles of my heart. 'Tis the season for homemade mallow making and gifting!
But I've also gotten some requests for a few marshmallow-making tips and troubleshooting help for the recipes, which I also happen to love. Happy to help. For those new to mallowing, it is most certainly wacky, leaving plenty of room for self-doubt and simple mistakes. But don't freak out! It's just sugar! Everything will be okay. Keep in mind that the following tips refer specifically to recipes and techniques in MM, but some will cross over into any homemade marshmallow recipe you might try.
1. First things first. Please, please save yourself some crazy and at least skim through the introduction and frontmatter of the book before attempting the recipes.95%-ish of all questions I get about the book have answers in the frontmatter. This actually goes for any cookbook, and particularly those that are about a single subject or specific cooking or baking technique. When writing a cookbook, there are often space limitations for the individual recipes (a big part of the budget for a book revolves around a set number of pages), and verbiage that seems repetitive from recipe to recipe is often the first thing to be trimmed. Of course, we try to keep what we think is the really important stuff intact, but cookbooks are collaborative efforts, and in the end, you have to make group decisions about what's most helpful in a recipe when space is tight.
As a result, more specific language that will help you work through the recipes often lands in the frontmatter, or is highlighted in callout boxes or sidebars on different pages of the book. (Sidebar: That's the biggest bummer about pulling individual cookbook recipes from online or trying "adapted" versions of a recipe from blogs when you don't own the whole book, especially ones like MM that have techniques that are somewhat unfamiliar. In those cases, you don't have access to the author's introductory info and extra tips that might not be in the copy of the recipe that you have.)
In Marshmallow Madness!, for example, the frontmatter includes a crazy amount of info on everything from equipment suggestions to calibrating your candy thermometer to ideal marshmallow-making weather (yes, this is a thing). I even give a list of the exact brands of ingredients that I used to test the recipes so there's no guesswork as to whether you're using the "right" gelatin or beet vs. cane sugar or whatever. I also address specifics for things like preparing your pan or candy mold before you scrape the batter in so things are nonstick but not too oily, and how to know that you've sufficiently whipped the marshmallow batter so that it will set properly. Speaking of which...
2. When I get notes about marshmallows that turn out "soggy" after storing, have a "dense" or "spongy" texture, or some that even seem to leak moisture upon cutting (gross!), underwhipping the marshmallow batter is almost always going to be the culprit. If you find that this happens to you and you haven't been attempting to mallow on a humid or rainy day, then the batter needed more whipping time to dry out a bit before it was scraped into the pan to set. The curing/setting time, even though it's six+ hours long, won't do all the work in drying marshmallow batter that was too wet when it went into the pan. Mixer speeds and strengths vary, so the whipping times for each recipe are approximate, and you may need more whipping time on high speed to get a good finished result. On page 12 of the frontmatter (there's that pesky frontmatter again), I talk about whipping times, mixer strengths and speeds and how you can better gauge if your marshmallow batter is ready to go into the pan.
See, in marshmallow making, when the hot sugar syrup and gelatin are whipped together, a couple things happen, and both have to do with getting enough air into the batter during whipping: evaporation of moisture from the batter, and the gelatin and sugar begin to cool and set while air is incorporated. One way to know that you're on your way to marshmallows that will cure and set properly is that a sufficiently-whipped marshmallow batter will hold a soft shape for a several seconds before schlumping back on itself when you pull up the whisk attachment.
Another key sign is that the bowl will be cool to the touch all over (the bottom may retain a bit of warmth if you have a style of mixer where the bowl is attached to the mixer at the bottom, like a KitchenAid Artisan style mixer). In general, my marshmallow batters aren't as stringy and sticky as other recipes when you scrape them out of the bowl--they flow some, but still require some scraping and smoothing with a spatula in order to get them into the pan and spread into an even layer. There are just a couple exceptions to this rule, and those recipes will indicate that--sufficiently-whipped boozy mallow batters, for example, tend to stay a bit looser--go figure.
3. If underwhipping doesn't seem to be your issue, you can try trimming a tablespoon or two of water (no more) from the liquid for blooming the gelatin. This is a last resort step and one that's only been the answer on a couple of occasions, when a person lives in a particularly humid or rainy area. If you take away any more moisture than that, you'll risk tough, flat mallows and throwing the whole recipe off.
4. Calibrate your candy thermometer to make sure your sugar syrups are really the temperature your thermometer is telling you they are. See page 9 for details on how to do this. Cooking the sugar syrup to the temperature indicated in each recipe is the key to getting the right texture once the marshmallows have set. Even just a couple degrees too hot or too cool makes all the difference. If the sugar isn't cooked hot enough, they'll be mushy (and possibly contribute to the "soggy" factor mentioned above). If the syrup is cooked too hot, they'll set too firm and chewy and lack volume.
Be sure that the tip of the thermometer is submerged in the sugar syrup while it's boiling for an accurate read. If your pot is too big, the syrup level won't reach the thermometer, so use the smallest saucepan you have. On the other hand, make sure the tip of the thermometer is not so deeply submerged that it's touching the bottom of the pot, which will also wildly throw off the reading. And since we're on the subject of sugar syrup...
6. Once the sugar syrup is up to temperature, it is go time. It needs to go directly into the mixer bowl with the gelatin and corn syrup goo and get to whipping. Hot sugar syrup waits for no one. It cannot be cooled and reheated or stored. It just needs to get right into the bowl and start working its magic, pronto.
6. You cannot talk on the phone, tweet, or attempt to herd multiple children or animals while making marshmallows for the first time. Which is to say that any candymaking process requires some focus and forethought for things to go smoothly. That's not to say that it's horribly time-consuming, but you do need to plot a bit. Read through the recipe two or three times before you begin. Measure out your ingredients beforehand.Double check that all ingredients have been added in the right places. For example, in all the recipes, I divide the measure of corn syrup--half goes in the pot on the stove, half goes in the mixer bowl with the melted gelatin. A handful of folks have forgotten to put the other half of the corn syrup in one of those places, and in doing so left it out of the recipe altogether, which doesn't bode well for the finished product.
7. Storage tips to keep your cut mallows fresh and dry can be found on page 13. If you're going to be packaging and giving mallows as gifts, it's never a bad idea to let the cut and dusted marshmallows set out on a sheet tray for another couple hours before wrapping. I see homemade marshmallows being sold in high-end shops that have a bit of moisture beginning to bead up inside the package--it's just something that happens with homemade mallows sometimes. But giving them a little more air time just to insure that they're as dry as can be before packaging is always a good thing.
I hope that these tips touched on a few areas that most often seem to be tripping people up when working through the recipes in MM--did any of these make a lightbulb go off for you? I've gotta say that the toughest thing about writing a book about a topic like homemade marshmallows that doesn't have a whole lot of competitors (or Google-able information, for that matter) is the obsessive need to try and cram in just about every discovery, tip, and technique that I could think of that would help everyone experience sweet, sweet mallow-making. But of course there will always be things that need clarification, especially since the recipes and techniques might be new to even experienced kitchen folk.
If you're running into issues working through any of my recipes from my books, blog, or otherwise, I am always here, ready to throw out some knowledge if I can. Comment here with more questions if you like. Or feel free to Facebook, tweet, or e-mail me, people. I like to write nerdy, lengthy responses. I'm here for you.